CBS2’s Steve Overmyer takes us inside a historic safe haven.
A spot underneath Plymouth Church in Brooklyn was part of the path to freedom — a station on the Underground Railroad — 170 years ago.
“The fear, the hope. The uncertainty and the sense of safety are all part of this story,” said Melissa Collom, the historian at Plymouth Church.
“As you walk forward, watch your head because the ceilings get lower and lower,” Collom said as she showed Overmyer around.
CONTINUING COVERAGE: Black History Month
Long before actual trains coursed through the city, Brooklyn was open farmland and the home to many anti-slavery churches.
“So, people were coming across the East River from Manhattan on ferries. And in winter, the river would be filled with ice. So it really was a separate place from Manhattan,” Collom said.
Plymouth Church was founded by Quakers who played a huge role in the formation of the Underground Railroad.
“A famous conductor of the Underground Railroad, Charles B. Ray, was a minister at an African-American church in Brooklyn. And he would bring people here for safety. So you’d get this network,” said Collom.
Beneath this holy place, in a sub basement behind a steel door, freedom seekers would find their sanctuary.
They’d stay for one or two nights.
“They would get some rest. They would get some food. You can imagine how hungry people would be on this journey,” Collom said.
This was 30 years before the electrical age would begin. So travel would be under the cover of darkness.
“So it is a misconception that once people got to New York, they were safe,” said Collom.
The streets of Manhattan were filled with bounty hunters. But in the stonewalled room with a dirt floor and no windows, history comes to life.
“I’ve had people say that they can feel this sense of security in this space. This foundation is from 1823 and it’s still standing. So you feel this sense of being protected,” Collom said.
After months of travel, living in fear, relying on both Black and white supporters, they’d arrive here.
Of course, there’s no documentation of who came through or how many. But they all shared the same belief in a possible future.
One could only imagine they had to feel like this was the only way for them to make it in the world.
“It’s a really special combination of risk and hope. It’s an enormous risk for everyone involved. But there’s also is a sense of hope and possibility that there still is life worth living, and taking that risk to get there is worth it,” said Collom.
That’s because living in extraordinary times amplifies the call for exceptional people.